Neuroceptive Response: The Science Behind Stuckness
Ever found yourself setting a goal and feeling great and so excited about it, and then it’s time to do the thing and your body and mind are focused on everything but that thing you said you were going to do. Like journaling, setting limits on your own screen time, daily thought work, writing your quarantine novel, applying to grad school, starting your own podcast, the list is endless. We’re going deep nerd on the concept of the minimum daily baseline and the nervous system reason, called neuroceptive response, behind why you are not doing the thing you so want to do and feeling wicked stuck in your own not-doingness.
First, as always, human to human, babe, I want to name how painful, frustrating, irritating it can be to live in the duality of both very wanting to do a thing and then just not doing it.
So let’s visualize this. You decide you want to start your own coaching practice, start dating again, to move your body or feed yourself in a new way. You may start spinning in the kind of perfectionist thought fantasy. And you may be able to rein it in and to pick one thing to work on to build trust with yourself.
Either way, whether you’re in that fantasy of I’m going to do all the things or you pick the one, you decide tomorrow is the day, and you go to sleep and the next day comes and it’s like, all that motivation you felt yesterday just fizzles away, just melts out of your body.
Or feels like all of a sudden, your brain is telling you to do everything in the world other than doing this new thing you want to do, that thing you’ve been talking about doing for ages. That thing you’re actually really excited about doing, but you feel like you’re walking in quicksand when you try to do it.
Stuck, stuck, stuck.
Remember, the three core biological imperatives of being a human mammal. One, to avoid pain or danger, two, to seek pleasure and safety, and three, to be biologically efficient. Also known as to not ever change anything that hasn’t killed you yet.
Starting from there, we can understand that back in the cave human days, if you called attention to yourself, if you had your own opinion that was different from the village leaders, if you did something silly like being seen or heard or were vulnerable emotionally or spoke your truth, lived your life on your own terms, any of those things could put you at risk of being cast out of the village and thus, likely to be a lion’s lunch.
So we learned that it was not smart or safe to stand out.
Fast forward to modern times. If you as a child felt unsafe being seen, if it felt unsafe to be too loud or too quiet, or if you heard or learned that being you in all your childlike glory meant that you were too much or not enough, and let’s note that those inner dialogues often come together. The “I am too much for him and not enough for him, or life in general.”
If you didn’t feel accepted or supported or loved in your family the way your child brain and self needed, if you learned that the way to not be the scapegoat, to not be criticized, not be judged or controlled was to look perfect on the outside, or that you were safe when you were anticipating other people’s needs and doing task after task to prove yourself and your worthiness, then all of that got encoded in you as a smart way to be safe.
And in an ironic turn of biochemical events, if you grew up with high levels of internal and/or external stress in your early childhood years, then things being okay, setting goals and meeting them, life being calm, feeling good can actually feel really stressful because biological imperatives.
It is such a wild change from what your body is used to when it’s used to adrenaline or epinephrine and cortisol racing through your body in sympathetic activation or that dorsal immobilization. When either of those extremes — and they’re not so extreme, they’re very common and part of all of our everyday — but when those were predominant in your early life, the thought of making your world the one you want to live in and actually doing it can create a stress response that stops you from actually doing those things.
Now as an adult, your brain may be singing that old childhood song from your habitual survival thought patterns that says it’s dangerous to do things like:
- take care of yourself first
- say no to others
- set boundaries
- launch that new career
- take the time to exercise
- set goals and trust you’re going to stick to them
- charge what you’re worth, for your time, for your expertise
- feed yourself with love instead of being on a restrictive diet
- to simply be seen for who you truly are as your most authentic self.
- to use your voice and speak up for yourself, your wants, and beliefs
- to have an opinion and stand by it
- to not take things personally
When you try to do the things you say you want to do, your beautiful self-loving old protective mechanisms come to the fore to scream danger.
And that may not sound like a scream. It may sound like, “Oh, I’ll do my thought work or exercise or go live on Instagram after I do these 473 things around the house.”
What’s so important and has been so healing for me is to recognize and honor that these voices, yes, the ones that hold you back from doing the thing you say you want to do, are voices of self-love.
They’re just confused about what is dangerous to you as an adult.
If you really pause to think about it, there’s actual no real time danger in most of these things, these actions.
But we have these old subconscious thoughts that yes, these are dangerous things, yes, it is risky to take care of myself. One of the reasons is that it may have felt dangerous in childhood.
This is where we get to practice holding that duality.
Practicing and believing and knowing that you can both hear the old thought, “don’t take care of yourself, don’t speak up.” We can hear those thoughts, honor them, give them love, while simultaneously practicing not believing those thoughts. Recognizing them, doing that meta work of being your own watcher and practicing using your prefrontal cortex, that most evolved part of our human mind to begin to believe a new story, to use this new tool.
And this cognitive framework must be grounded in a somatic one in my opinion because science.
This is your magnificent neuroceptive response, which comes from ye olde lizard mind in your brain stem.
It’s that part of you that’s built to look for and call out danger. It’s constantly scanning the horizon for the next thing that is going to murder you, the next sabretooth tiger, and to have you as a nice little snack.
That neuroceptive amazing part of your brain can luckily also sense safety and it picks those cues up and distributes the right neurochemicals throughout your body to create that sense of being safe in the world.
It’s in that moment of feeling physically and emotionally safe that you can take action.
This is often what’s happening when we create the goal in the first place. We feel safe enough to do so, but remember, the moment your lizard neuroceptive part of the brain senses danger, back to the cozy bed or the couch you go to not do the thing that you are correlating on an evolutionary, childhood learning, social conditioning level to danger.
Those beautiful, magnificent, and sure, challenging parts come online to say hold the phone there, kitten, that is not a great call to tell him you can’t go out tonight even though you’re so exhausted and already took your bra off.
But the part of you that is scared of being abandoned if you say no, I’m not available, is worried that he’ll be disappointed and then he’ll probably abandon you, which is definitely a bad idea.
So you go against what you actually want for you.
You put your bra on and march your little self out that door to do a thing you don’t want to do because brains and child parts and neuroceptions of danger for saying no.
If having an opinion and voicing it got you made fun of as a kid then your protective parts store that information and remind you forever and ever until you teach them something different, that doing these things is patently stupid, overwhelming, just too much and just not something to do.
And so it stops you in the only way it knows how. With an urge to buffer, which is to do anything you can to not feel a feeling.
So you buffer, you try to push away your emotions, and you find yourself, meaning you’ve gone unconscious.
Any time you’re saying, “Oh, I just found myself doing it,” you’ve gone unconscious. That’s okay. But you binge on anything you can find in order to distract yourself from the discomfort of your protector parts screaming stop trying to improve your life.
So that can be TV, exercise, food, alcohol, gossip, complaining, pretty much anything can act as a buffer, and it’s the energy with which you do it that makes it either a buffer, a checking out, or something beautiful you’re doing for you as self-care to check in.
And while yes, those behaviors, overdoing it with anything, doing anything to buffer and try to not feel your feels, they certainly don’t serve you.
The more you can recognize them as self-love, the more you can gently intervene as your own most loving parent, the more you can heal.
Other common experiences of that neuroceptive response coming on board is to feel foggy brain, distracted, unfocused, to have writer’s block.
All those years I thought, whatever, I’m just not a person who can focus, I have ADD or something, ADHD.
I now realize, a large portion of it, some of it’s my wiring, that’s fine, was this neuroceptive response coming on board and it was fear.
It was not being in that safety with myself. So all of that, that blocking is your dorsal vagal response getting activated. Your immobilization or your freeze response, as your body tries to protect you from your thoughts.
So you take a nap, or you scroll your phone, you disconnect from the here and now because it’s too much for your perfect mind and body.
Alternately, due to neuroceptive response, you could go into the high alert, the hyperdrive of sympathetic activation, hypervigilance. And could feel anxious or panicked or worked up over what your conscious mind might call seemingly nothing.
Part of you feels petrified to do what you want to do because of that neuroceptive response.
And yes, your thoughts can of course perpetuate this cycle.
When you have that neuroceptive, protective response and you allow yourself to judge, guilt, or shame yourself for having it, you drive it further into your lived experience.
You make it something more and more real. Something to be believed.
And our bodies are always weighing out how many experiences of doing this thing and feeling safe have I had versus experiences of doing this and feeling unsafe.
Step one, bring awareness to what sends you into that dorsal shutdown, that immobilization, or that sympathetic fight or flight response. Notice your neuroceptive response.
Step two, honor it, love it, thank it.
Step three, pick a thing to practice with like journaling, movement, writing your book, asking for help, setting a boundary, whatever is up for you that you want to work on and with. Nothing is too small here.
Step four, before you get started doing this practice of working towards your goal with more neuroceptive response awareness, orient yourself to your space, which is a way to bring yourself into the present moment, the here and now.
This is a practice that lets your perfect protectors know that adult you and your highest self are online and that you’re doing something new. It lets your body and your mind know that you’re not a little kid, you’re an adult. And in this one moment, when you’re about to make that phone call or open the computer, whatever it may be, you are safe with yourself.
Step five, scan your body for activation energy.
Any zaps or pings or discomforts from your mind-body telling you you’re not safe. Expect them at first and always give them love. This is normal. It’s totally okay to have all that activation energy.
Step six, decide ahead of time what you’re going to do if that sympathetic, anxious, revved up feeling or that dorsal sleepiness check out sensation comes on board for you while you are attempting to take action.
You could have a thought ready like, “I am reminding myself that I am safe in this moment to do this,” or, “I am committed to taking this action and I trust myself to take this small and mighty step.”
And you can also combine that new thought with something physical. You can take slow deep breaths and focus, like we do, on that long slow out. Because it’s that long slow exhale that actually calms your body.
You can run your hands and wrist under cool water if you’re feeling a big dorsal shutdown, or you can do some jumping jacks. Whatever other resources you have in your toolbox to help you get back into ventral vagal.
I highly recommend doing these small beautiful things before, after, during this task as needed. We do this to bookend the experience. So the goal here is to rewrite the danger cue with a loving safety cue.
I also recommend bringing in a new thought to support yourself. For example, “it is not dangerous to write in my journal. It is safe and something I want to do for me.”
Remember my perfect one, this will likely be uncomfortable and that’s okay.
Your protector parts may want to keep you from doing even the smallest thing and that’s okay.
They can want that. You get to honor them, but you don’t have to obey them. Just make sure that you’re emotionally preparing yourself for that discomfort. Expect it and when it arises, give it love.
Step eight, as you move gently to expand your window of dignity or tolerance, you can start by doing the task just for you.
If being seen is the stressful part, and you can remind yourself of this, “I am doing 10 minutes of movement just for me. I’m writing this blog post but I’m not going to make it live yet.”
Allow your protector parts to feel safe enough to let you do the thing and then come back to it later in the day or later in the week as a second focus time dignity window expanding activity and gently encourage yourself to actually post the blog or post to your Instagram, record the thing, be seen.
Finally, step nine, once you know where your edges are, you can add 30 seconds a day or one to two minutes a day to your practice time, expanding what you believe yourself capable of doing.
Expanding that window of dignity or tolerance. Whatever word works for you, by taking tiny kitten-sized steps at a time, aligning your thoughts, your feels, your nervous system, your body, for your own best good, to intentionally build your most amazing life.